In the words of the late Steve Jobs, “Real artists ship.” To this we might add, “Over and over and over again.” I found his quote coming back to me as I prepared this piece on “micro brands.” What began as a survey and review of various micro brands whose creations I’d acquired over the last few years ended up being a meditation on the challenges to a micro-brand’s business sustainability as I noticed how some of the brands involved in research don’t appear to be active anymore while others went on to much bigger things.
It got me to thinking that those micro brands with a desire to grow their business and stick around for a while might be able to use an additional strategy besides direct sales to help them keep their business going. Here I’m specifically suggesting the micro brands think about using their skills and creativity to look at working with some of the more active independent retailers who get involved with capsule collections under their own label.
It’s a fact of any creative area that sometimes even the most talented creations fail to take hold. For instance pictured is a military styled jacket in heavy Melton wool created in a limited edition (each piece is numbered) by a brand out of San Francisco called Distilled. I remember they got some blog love a few years back and given they were an American company whose creativity was promoted I went ahead and acquired the jacket. It has excellent craftsmanship and over time has become my go-to everyday jacket in the winter. But where is Distilled? It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything about them.
At the same time, years ago before their own stores, before their web site, before they were carried by major retailers, many of us were acquiring Rag & Bone. Once-upon a time, almost everything they made was made in the U.S.A. and had price points that a number of smaller retailers around the country felt comfortable with. While most micro brands don’t obviously have the connections R & B have, nor perhaps the same kinds of ambitions, the idea of doing something you love and making a living from it, is probably a reasonable assumption about one of the most basic desires those behind micro brands may have.
Today there are a number of micro-brands and brands a step up or two from there. The former might include a brand like Read’s Clothing Project, The Knottery’s hand made shoe laces “produced in a factory in the USA where a man, his children and his grandchildren all work to produce quality shoelaces,” or the pocket square from Michael James Milton out of a medium weight Japanese cotton in gray with crow’s feet design (pictured), while the latter might include someone like Brooklyn Tailors whose success with their hand made and hands on suiting and other clothing has allowed them to expand from their apartment to an actual retail space.
Of course only a relatively few micro brands will make the transition to prolonged success with their offerings, with fewer still able to open a retail establishment let alone get picked up by larger establishments – presuming they want to.
However, for those micro brands seeking to sustain their business and still preserve both the passion for their creativity and supplement or even replace their day job while growing their brand there’s perhaps another avenue they can take, taking on the manufacturing of pieces in retailer-branded capsule collections for the likes of an Odin, Epaulet or Freeman’s in NYC, Blackbird in Seattle or Context in Madison to name a few of the more innovative stores in this respect. These are retailers involved with creating small runs of clothing, shoes and accessories at reasonable price points and fine levels of quality.
Like the supermarket industry whose stores have come to appreciate the value in having the higher margins and brand recognition in having private label lines of food made for their particular stores, the above named retailers are sourcing micro brand like entities to create clothing in their name, at an attractive price point when compared to similar articles with similar materials and manufacturing standards found elsewhere and manufactured in far off lands. For the most part, the retailers have as their regular partners in the private label manufacturing process either established manufacturers who have supplied many in the trade in a timely and dependable manner and/or brands themselves that have reached a certain level of quality and performance in this regard.
However, for a micro brand who may feel this is a difficult area to move into, I’d say things are always in flux. What was profitable for a store to do with a manufacturer in the past may not be now due to any number of factors, or perhaps the normal sources just don’t provide the certain “spark” said retailer may be looking for and just possibly a given micro brand might have that.
There would seem to be a number of advantages for both the micro brand and the retailer in collaboration. Aside from the hopefully helpful financial input for manufacturing involvement with the retailer the micro brand has the possibility of using this contribution to help fuel their own brand directed creations. And the dialog needed to work with the retailer means the micro brand learns more about the “bottom line” considerations needed to provide a foundation for continuing the business apart from the actual creative ideas that come about through collaboration. Here we’re talking about things like the importance of margins, looking at material costs, logistics against the background of how to preserve the unique features that give the retailer and interested direct buyer an interest in acquiring creations from the micro brand in the first place.
In the end it’s this middle way that may offer an avenue for micro brands to not only survive but excel over time and make their contribution to the resurgence in desire for the kind of clothing with the kinds of stories and authenticity many of us are fueling with our buying habits helping brands who are passionate about their creations and their desire to continue doing what they love to do.
Dean Balsamo is an executive in the magazine industry obsessed with sartorial matters around craftsmanship, heritage, and personal style. He lives in Santa Fe, NM.